Dr Oliver Kearns

Dr Oliver Kearns

Dr Oliver Kearns
Senior Research Associate

G.03, 3 Priory Road,
11 Priory Road, Clifton, Bristol
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Telephone Number (0117) 954 5565
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School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies

Listening in on the secret state: numbers stations and the aurality of secrecy

Personal profile

I received my PhD from the University of Edinburgh before joining the University of Bristol in July 2018 as an ESRC New Investigators senior research associate.

Outside of my research on sound, I am an electronic/experimental composer - my latest work is out on Aphelion Editions. I also occasionally write on music at Murmurations.


My work focuses on how states maintain different kinds of secrecy - particularly around their use of violence abroad - and how these efforts leave traces in the public sphere that affect both the activities themselves and popular ideas and feelings about what the state does in the dark.

My current research, funded by an ESRC New Investigators grant, examines numbers stations - shortwave radio transmissions, existing for decades, used to send coded messages to spies abroad. These transmissions involve automated voices, musical interludes and rhythms of white noise, and remain virtually unbreakable, despite being able to be picked up by anyone. I am researching the global history and geopolitics of numbers stations' use, and how the interception of these sounds reproduce the secret state within public space, as something one can 'listen in' on. This forms part of a broader project to trace the links between secrecy, sound and state-making over the last century.

In my doctoral work, which I am now preparing as a book, I examine the public traces of unseen covert action during the Obama and Trump years of the 'War on Terror'. From drone strikes to special forces raids, secret counter-terrorism leaves behind all sorts of traces, from smoke and rubble to rumours and speculation. This residue can end up undermining state narratives for violence by hinting at unspoken possibilities about what happened. At the same time, this shifts the focus away from those at the receiving end of this violence. I use colonial historiography and the writings of W.G. Sebald to argue for a link between this covert counter-terrorism and U.S. lynching a century earlier: in both cases, secretive violence becomes known as disturbing because hard to comprehend, narrowing the kind of ethical questions asked of it.

Finally, I have an ongoing interest in the role of Orientalism in state intelligence work, and in the possibility of post-humanist approaches to the ethics of witnessing distant violence.


I have previously taught on undergraduate courses in Theories of International Relations and on postgraduate courses in International Relations Theory and International Security at the University of Edinburgh.

Fields of interest

state secrecy, sound and geopolitics, witnessing

Key publications

  1. Kearns, O, 2017, ‘Secrecy and absence in the residue of covert drone strikes’. Political Geography, vol 57., pp. 13-23
  2. Kearns, O, 2016, ‘State secrecy, public assent, and representational practices of U.S. covert action’. Critical Studies on Security, vol 4., pp. 276-290

Full publications list in the University of Bristol publications system

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